2401 Objects: A play to remember
On 1 September 1953, 27-year-old Henry Molaison underwent surgery for epilepsy, driven by the increasingly devastating and disruptive effects of frequent blackouts and seizures. At first, the risky surgery seemed a success, but it soon became clear that something had gone seriously wrong. While Henry could remember most of his life before the operation, he was unable to form new memories.
William Beecher Scoville was the surgeon responsible. His drastic experimental procedure involved removing tissue from Henry’s temporal lobes, including most of the amygdala and hippocampus on each side of his brain. Without these parts, Henry’s brain was no longer able to create new memories.
Now, the story of Henry’s life and legacy is told in 2401 Objects, a co-production of Analogue, Oldenburgisches Staatstheater and New Wolsey Theatre. Supported by a Wellcome Trust Arts Award, this production runs at the Pleasance Beyond at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe until 28 August.
Henry, renamed in the medical literature as “Patient HM”, became one of the most heavily studied cases by brain researchers, both during his life and after his death in 2009. Henry donated his brain to science and it is now the first item stored in San Diego’s Brain Observatory’s open-access online brain library.
The production opens and closes with the voice of neuroanatomist Dr Jacopo Annese, Director of the Brain Observatory, who explains his role in Henry’s life. It was Annese who, over a 53-period in December 2009, dissected Henry’s brain into the 2401 pieces that gives the play its name.
As the play develops, the story of Henry unfolds, jumping in time and location across his life. His frustration at his circumstances pervades the action and you can’t help but watch with a sense of impending doom, as different aspects of Henry’s life and disability slowly come into focus.
As a young man, he is disabled both physically and socially by his fits. Domestic scenes express the strain his condition puts on all aspects of his and his parents’ lives. It becomes clear that surgery offers the only hope of respite from the family’s situation. Post-operation, he is changed. A different actor plays the post-operation Henry, who still possesses a sense of his pre-surgery self, just diluted, different.
The use of only three actors to play all the characters adds to the woozy, confusing atmosphere that makes you begin to question the reliability of your own memories. A gauze backdrop is used on stage throughout. Scenery and videoclips are projected on to this, and it is also used as a barrier between characters. Hazy and distant as seen through this fabric, characters and scenes feel like half-remembered events from the past.
Between scenes the backdrop frame sweeps up and down stage. Often, the characters appear or disappear by sliding under the screen, as if they’re being sucked down into the black hole of Henry’s pre-operation memory, or appearing apparently from nowhere into his present life. It’s a disorientating but effective touch.
In the middle of the production the house lights come up and we’re asked to place our hands on our heads and think about the brain within. This and other reflexive touches remind us that our hippocampi are busy helping us lay down our own memories of the play as it unfolds before us – something the older Henry wasn’t able to do.
Memory is so central to our experiences as humans. Deficits in our ability to make, store and or/retrieve memories cause pain and a sense of loss that is felt so keenly, often most of all by those surrounding patients rather than the patients themselves. That loss of something essential in Henry was captured acutely by Analogue. Watching 2401 Objects was an emotional and moving experience that brought Patient HM to life as a human being, and made Henry much more than just the owner of an amazing brain.
- 2401 Objects has won a Scotsman Fringe First award, which recognises the best new writing at the Fringe. Congratulations!
- EDIT: On 28 August you can join Analogue and two leading figures from neuroscience, Prof. Richard Morris and Dr Jacopo Annese, to find out more about Henry’s story, memory and the current state of brain research. The event at the University of Edinburgh starts at 6pm and is free. Book your ticket.